‘Hack ‘n’ Slash’as niche as they come

By Colin McInerney

“Hack ‘n’ Slash” is as rough around the edges as expected for a game that lets players change its variables, but it allows for an unparalleled kind of expressive freedom and tinkering not often seen in puzzle or adventure games where players can tackle situations in any way they see fit. Regardless, its intricacies and flaws may be enough to turn away the average gamer.

The hack-and-slash game genre is well established: The player has a sword or similar bladed weapon which he or she uses to hack enemies to bits. “Hack ‘n’ Slash” plays very similarly to a 2D “Legend of Zelda” title in that the player can move and swing a sword in four directions, making for a very simple combat style that never separates itself from the more exploratory parts of the game. The difference in “Hack ‘n’ Slash” is that it uses the word “hack” as it relates to computers. The player’s sword is a USB thumb drive, and both enemies and environmental objects have USB ports on them. When attacked, a window opens, allowing the player to modify actual mechanics in the game.

This is where the game really shines. Enemies can be modified and simply have their health set to zero, dispatching them. But for the player wishing to push the boundaries, enemies can be given massive health, attack strength or have their faction—the relationships between groups of characters—changed from “bad” to “good,” making them attack other enemies rather than the player. Their idle behaviors can be changed, setting them to patrol certain areas, or can even cause them to run into another horde of enemies and flatten them all with newfound strength and health granted through the hack. This creates an unprecedented level of agency and feels incredible to play.

“Hack ‘n’ Slash” is primarily and exploratory puzzle game, and the mechanics that make the combat so interesting make the puzzles more so. The difference here is that they rely on a reasonable knowledge of computers, and new items and mechanics aren’t always clear about what they do. This is readily apparent in two items that complement each other. The first, Ida’s device, suggests it will find information in the world. What it doesn’t specify is that this is the player’s own variables, such as name and health, the former of which is changed to solve a puzzle. The other item, a genie lamp, says it will help you change truths about the world. It does not specify that it requires Ida’s device and will then modify the values that Ida’s device gives you.

When the player eventually figures these things out, it allows for some very interesting tinkering. One item allows for the player to step backwards in time to any previously-entered area, allowing for infinite mistakes at the expense of wasted time and effort. The genie lamp allows for just three uses, but using the time-turner device to go back to before the lamp was used allows for additional uses, but the values setting with it will also be reverted. Entire battles can be acted out with enemy guards by changing their idle behaviors to different sides of the room, changing their factions and pitting them against each other. Something as simple as hacking a bush to make it drop 100 hearts when it catches fire makes the player feel empowered in a way very few other games can. If you are not much of a tinkerer or if you just want to play through a game, this will not appeal to you in the slightest. Hardcore puzzle gamers, programmers and game designers will feel right at home.

Double Fine Productions is known for being a weird sort of middle ground between AAA, big-budget and indie, making it hard to place in the industry. The studio often make quirky games from the smash hit “Psychonauts” to the often under-appreciated “Brütal Legend.” Double Fine makes sure its games have an signature twist. Never has this been truer than with “Hack ‘n’ Slash.” Its exploration of game development strictly through game mechanics and an “open-book” policy about its inner workings creates a kind of transparency uncommon in the gaming sphere.

If you are looking for a game that allows you to truly explore its inner workings, look no further than “Hack ‘n’ Slash.” If you want a more cohesive experience, a bit more safety and the idea of breaking a game scares you, steer clear. First and foremost, this is a game for developers and die-hard Double Fine fans. It oozes the company’s characteristic charm while delivering a fresh experience that simply does not have mass appeal. The complexity of the game will definitely turn off the casual or rookie gamer due to its reliance on a reasonable understanding of game programming and tropes, but long-time gamers will find something to really sink their teeth into and learn something along the way.